Melting pots and marketplaces
describes how cities will lead the world through a
It was Shakespeare who asked: 'What are cities but its
people?' In considering the future of cities, we are in fact considering
the future of humanity.
For a long time urban problems have mainly been associated with cities in
the southern hemisphere. The first United Nations Conference on Human
Settlements, held in Vancouver in 1976, dealt mainly with living
conditions in developing countries. But today we are faced with a
worldwide phenomenon, with the major cities, in particular, experiencing
similar problems wherever they are.
Cities have always been melting pots and marketplaces, the physical sites
of social interaction and communication, the places where ideas and
products flourish and receive their social and economic value. They are
the focus of creativity and culture, where opportunities are offered,
creating the preconditions for progress and the firmest foundations for
Cities, being high density human settlements, generate more noise,
pollution, traffic jams and social frictions. They are also centres of
information exchange, learning, production, opportunities and freedom of
options, plus the enhancement of a richer cultural life.
In cities, economic factors are translated into social facts, for better
or worse. Economic policies, their successes and failures, are immediately
noticeable in cities. In other words, cities reflect the turmoil of the
period that humankind is going through.
We are living through a painful, and sometimes dramatic, period of
transition that is affecting the very structure and basis of human
society. Transitions throughout history show that people and institutions
are afraid of change. When people are uncertain of the future, their first
response is to retreat and, through an instinct of self-preservation, to
become intolerant and selfish, to defend what they have today because they
do not know what they will have tomorrow. This is what is happening as the
20th century draws to its close, and it is much more evident in towns and
cities than in rural areas.
Intolerance increases, while nationalism mushrooms; corporate bodies
(including labour forces) cling to their privileges; institutions reject
any progressive change; solidarity is replaced by suspicion and hatred, by
a new wave of urban tribalism, if not by madness and violence.
It is, in fact, society that is violent - but the violence is more obvious
in an urban environment. Social problems are more obvious in areas where
there is a high population density, and are therefore immediately
associated with cities. But this concentration also means a greater
concentration of opportunities, a positive aspect that is not sufficiently
stressed: indeed, it is rarely mentioned.
The transitional phase that we are now experiencing will involve a change
of values, a new 'social contract' and new institutions. It will not
simply be a matter of creating a less consumer-oriented society or of
challenging competition as the overriding principle, as advocated by the
currents of thought centred around sustainable development and the
protection of the environment. Other things will also change: the balance
between a public social life and the need to preserve a private life; the
balance between noise and silence; family values - which have been swept
aside in recent decades - will probably be re-established; family
structure is changing. Many values will change, leading to the gradual
establishment of new ones.
We are directly or indirectly engaged in what the encyclopaedists of the
18th century did; redefine what is significant, fight against prejudice
and intolerance, and generously design a better world that will once again
have the city as a centre of peace, freedom, justice and solidarity.
I am optimistic because people in cities have lived through difficult
times before. In the mid-19th century, for example, the poor lived in
appalling conditions in London and New York. Yet society always manages to
find a way out. Cities will lead the process, taking humanity through the
transitional period which will, unfortunately, show its nastiest face on
the urban scene.
I believe that many cities are spear-heading innovations that are already
components of a new geopolitical world reality. And - though many authors
still resist accepting this - some of the solutions are coming from the
South, which is to be home to 19 of the largest 23 megacities of the
world. These include the air pollution abatement strategies of Brazil
(where about 40 per cent of cars now run on sugar-cane alcohol),
interesting cases of land-adjustment in Southeast Asia and the new urban
patterns than can be foreseen in China.
Decentralization of power
When we prepared the new metropolitan plan for São Paulo - a
metropolis of 16 million people that is still growing, if slowly - we had
to rethink planning concepts. We amplified the concept of the
sustainability of development, introducing strong programmes for the
public and for education, reopening the question of 'what is education' in
the present transitional global economy. We reconsidered São
Paulo's role, taking its global linkages into account. We reassessed its
needs for water, opening debate on recycling. And we proposed to
decentralize activities: instead of detailed zoning for the activities of
the 20 million people expected in the city in the year 2010, we stressed
issues of governance that will lead to a formal decentralization of power
and will enable the main actors in the city to participate.
Many cities are implementing action through partnerships and various other
types of decentralized management. A spontaneous, if not yet coherent,
network of cities is moulding an urban transnationalism - and producing
quick, although still limited, results. Good experiences are beginning to
be replicated - as are innovative urban solutions for transport systems,
water access, waste disposal and house provision and planning.
But local authorities cannot solve all the problems of development, even
with local partners. Many local initiatives have provided some housing for
homeless families. But it is only common sense that housing is not a
dramatic issue, so long as access to land is made possible, income and
wealth are fairly well distributed, governance and justice are transparent
and democratic, and wars, terrorism and natural disasters do not destroy
lives, homes and cities. These are national issues: they depend on central
government, on justice and on constitutions.
Or consider sanitation and waste. There is no sewage system in Kinshasa.
In Kingston, only 18 per cent of the people are connected to the sewers.
In Kampala, less than 10 per cent of the population benefits from regular
waste collection. In Karachi, only 40 per cent of the solid waste produced
by households is collected. Central government and international partners
will have to collaborate with local authorities and non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) if these huge problems are to be solved.
Central and local governments will also have to work in partnership on
urban transport and the air pollution caused by cars. Some interesting
initiatives have been implemented locally, especially in developing
country cities. But regulating the motor industry and changing fuels is a
major national - indeed, global - issue, that will have to be faced
resolutely, despite the various lobbies. We must invest in public
transport and make changes in the use of private cars. The new paradigm
should be: 'increase the use of the car, instead of the
number of cars'. We need to give incentives to research on hydrogen
and solar energy for vehicles - and, meanwhile, do more to run vehicles on
natural gas, biomass ethanol and electricity. Very little is being done
because of the inertia of vested interests and the lack of political will
to enter this field. And it would be of utmost importance that each city
established a relationship between the number of cars allowed to circulate
and the square metres of road lanes available for this traffic.
New role for government
The role played by government is fundamental since it is responsible for
deciding urban policies, and these cannot be decided by the market. The
message that the Istanbul summit will try to put across is that what is
needed is not reducing the role of government but changing it from a
'custodial' one to that of a 'driving force'. It must provide impetus and
capacity- building; it is responsible for creating the conditions that
enable the population and its organizations to play an active role.
The HABITAT II Conference clearly cannot provide immediate answers to all
the urban problems throughout the world. But there are times when asking
the right questions is more important than finding solutions. Its main aim
is to make people and governments aware of the real scale of the problem.
The United Nations particularly wants to show in Istanbul that there is an
alternative line of approach to finding solutions - through a partnership
of all those involved and the enabling of citizens and organizations.
HABITAT II will be the first United Nations Conference that is officially
open to NGOs and city authorities. It is the first officially to include
all the partners involved - towns and cities, the private sector, NGOs,
the researchers who work 'in the field' and the parliamentarians who make
the laws - in the basic organization of the Conference rather than just in
fringe meetings. By doing this, we want to set an example of a viable
working alternative to existing institutions, with new combinations of
players. We are trying to change the very way in which the United Nations
Organization operates; after all, it is not called the United
Jorge Wilheim is Deputy Secretary-General of HABITAT II. A well-known
Brazilian architect and town planner, he has been, at different times, the
country's Secretary of State for Planning and for the Environment and
São Paulo's President of the Planning Department.